Another day, another news report about an American at the Olympics, another chance to spot an important religion ghost.
Actually, this particular Los Angeles Times story was about the ultimate Olympian in the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro -- as in Michael Phelps, the superstar swimmer who has 21 gold medals and counting, as of last night.
It's crucial to know that the goal of this story was to describe how Phelps turned his life around and made it back to his fifth Olympics, after a series of private-life disasters that suggested he was all washed up. But here is the angle for GetReligion readers: When Phelps tells the story of his comeback, was there a faith-based -- maybe "purpose driven" -- hook in there somewhere? Hold that thought.
First, here is the solid, punchy Times description of the pit that Phelps dug for himself:
Four years ago, Phelps didn’t want to swim. He wasn’t training diligently. He wasn’t happy in the pool. He tried to fake it. Phelps managed to win four gold medals and two silvers in London, still performing at a different level than the rest of the world even when he didn’t care. ... He finally had enough.
Phelps retired for 18 months and wanted nothing more to do with swimming. Longtime rival and 11-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte predicted it wouldn’t last. He was right. Phelps couldn’t resist the lure of the pool and returned in April 2014. He gradually started to fall in love with the sport again. ...
The pivotal moment, however, came when he was cited for driving under the influence after leaving a Maryland casino in September 2014. Phelps, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months of probation, enrolled in a 45-day treatment program in Arizona. This wasn’t his first run-in with trouble outside of the pool. Ten years earlier, Phelps was arrested for DUI and a tabloid published a photo of him in 2009 inhaling from a marijuana pipe.
So what happened to Phelps? This feature story focuses on developments in the his private life, including the fact that he reconciled with his state trooper father, Fred, striving to heal wounds dating back to the divorce that rocked the swimmer's childhood. Phelps tried to become more responsible in other areas of his life, as well.
The big change, however, was becoming a father. The baby boy named Boomer gets the spotlight at the beginning, and end, of the story.
... The most profound change in the life Michael Phelps can be seen in a recent photograph. Phelps is dozing while his infant son, Boomer, born in May, does the same on his chest. Both of their mouths are wide open. The peace that collecting more medals than any other Olympian in history couldn’t produce, the peace that eluded Phelps for so many years, finally seems present.
Now, all of that is good, solid material.
But if you watch the ESPN feature at the top of this post, it's clear that there's another layer to the story. After his second DUI, after promising his coach he'd stay on track, Phelps faced the fact that he was failing both himself and those who loved him. Suicide seemed like a valid option.
A mentor in Baltimore, soon-to-be Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, stepped in and told Phelps to keep fighting, to keep working to build integrity and character. In the ESPN feature, Lewis says he told Phelps all about the very, very dark days in his own past and, if you know anything about this particular linebacker, you know that faith had to be a key part of those sermons.
This led to 45 days in rehab for Phelps. At this point, a well-known book -- a gift from Lewis -- played a key role.
There was even a local news hook here, for a newspaper in Los Angeles. This bestseller was "The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?" by the Rev. Rick Warren of the giant Saddleback Church in Orange County. The book has been translated into 88 languages, with sales topping 40 million copies.
It's pretty famous. Surely someone in the Times newsroom has heard of it.
This new Baptist Press piece (by Tim Ellsworth, one of my former students in Washington) is one of several pieces that show up online, when you search for information about Phelps and his recovery. Here's a sample:
Baptist mega-church pastor Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life significantly influenced Olympian Michael Phelps during rehab after his second arrest on a drunken driving charge.
“It’s turned me into believing that there is a power greater than myself, and there is a purpose for me on this planet,” Phelps said about the book in an ESPN feature. ...
Phelps credits The Purpose-Driven Life for much of the good he experienced in life during and after rehab. “It helped me when I was in a place where I needed the most help,” he said.
Let me stress, once again, that the goal of this particular Times feature was to describe how Phelps made his comeback. This wasn't just another story about his success in the pool.
So if you are writing a story about the recovery of a haunted Olympics superstar and your newspaper is based in Southern California, how do you miss this local angle? I mean, Warren's faith-driven self-help classic was on prominent display in a major ESPN feature and, well, how many books by authors in greater LA have sold more copies than "The Purpose Driven Life"?
Now, I have no idea to what degree religious faith is or isn't a factor for Phelps, these days. Someone would have to ask him about that.
Maybe a reporter from The Los Angeles Times could have done that, after doing some basic background work for this story?